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Is Too Much Efficiency Tanking Your UX?

UX, Web Development

UX design question

Einstein famously said, “Keep everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” In an effort to ensure all your processes are streamlined, your website might actually leave users in the lurch. While businesses want their website to feel clean and simple, too much simplicity can be confusing.

Simplicity can be the key element in an innovative and intuitive design. Unfortunately, UX engineers often confuse simplicity with minimalism. A product may look simple but carry hidden UI complexities that prove daunting to a user. The concept may sound confusing, but think of it this way: design decisions that aim for minimalism may actually increase a user’s cognitive load, which creates a less intuitive user experience. Common examples may include clickable icons that don’t feature text descriptions or non-standard gestures and illustrations.

One specific case in point is the controversial hamburger menu. This three-line icon can provide a lot of extra information and function within in a box, but it can also lead to confusion. In fact, many app users choose not to use it. On the other hand, research suggests some simple swaps can improve a hamburger menu’s use – for example, adding the word “menu” under the icon increased clicks 7.2%, and putting the hamburger menu inside a box increased them by 22.4%. Getting rid of the three lines in favor of a “menu” button increased clicks 20%.

In other words, the best intentions can lead to UX failure. The hamburger menu’s minimalist design – three horizontal lines – makes it easy to skim over. It’s also not a standard icon, and it means different things to different users. It doesn’t say, “Hey! Here are more features to look at.”

An additional problem with the hamburger menu is that it also hides potentially valuable content to your users. When you lock something away in the hamburger menu, you’re making it less discoverable. Your website might look better, but it’s also less intuitive. This is a prime example of minimalism, not simplicity.

When Minimalism Doesn’t Mean Simplicity

The web is full of examples where minimalist aesthetics led to user confusion. Here are just a couple:

  • The Fitbit Flex. Fitbit has carved out a reputation for offering simple, measureable ways to improve user health and track fitness. Their budget offering, the Flex, can be a bit of a head-scratcher. Like all Fitbit tools, users manage the entire interface through a series of taps. Unlike other models, however, this is the only way to manage the tool – there are no buttons or intuitive ways to manage options. For example, a double tap shows you progress towards your step goal, while another series of taps will put your tracker in “sleep mode” to track rest. While the tap-based method allows Fitbit to keep its streamlined look, it sacrifices user intuition. To make the most of the band, users will have to read the instructions, which is a tall order for our virtual attention span.
  • The overload menu. Similar to the hamburger menu, overload menus also come non-standardized. Some companies use an ellipsis (…) while others use a “more” button. On the face, these seem like a nice design trick: designers can take away unnecessary complexity and provide a nice, clean interface for users. Unfortunately, there’s one problem: you didn’t take away unimportant information, you simply hid it away where users couldn’t find it. With an overflow menu, you’re not addressing the core complexity of your application or website – you’re simply sweeping it under the rug.

Balancing Simplicity and Intuitive Design: Basic Definitions

How, then, can designers find the delicate balance between an intuitive design and a simple one? First, know what you are looking for. Simplicity in design is a lack of complexity and increases UX. Simple websites are easy to understand, intuitive to navigate, and leave a user with a positive experience.

Minimalism or cleanliness is a design principle. Minimalist sites have a lot of whitespace and don’t speak to a user’s experience; these sites are about form more than function. What matter is how it looks, not what it does.

These two concepts are important to differentiate because fewer buttons and options do not make a website simple. It may make it look clean, but it can confuse users and tank positive UX. Instead of killing usability for a minimal style, a good concept for designers to remember is “necessary complexity.” In other words, what information do your users require to navigate your website or application with ease?

Websites like Facebook and Craigslist don’t feature minimalist designs. There’s very little whitespace, and they can even appear cluttered at times. However, it’s basic – your grandmother likely has a Facebook account; users know how to find the information they’re looking for. While designers hear repeatedly to make their websites aesthetically attractive, they often confuse this with simplicity.

How to Make Your Website Attractive and Intuitive

Designers face a conundrum: how can they balance an attractive website with an intuitive one? It’s possible with the right approach. Try these tips:

  • Follow Hick’s Law – but use common sense. Every designer is likely familiar with British psychologist Edmund Hick, who showed that a person’s decision-making ability was proportionately affected by their available options. In other words, the more options you have on your screen, the greater a user’s cognitive load. This doesn’t mean you need to banish all options to submenus. Present your most attractive options on the homepage, providing your users with enough options and freedom to navigate without creating decision paralysis. Use submenus to contain other information, but use labelling and standardized gestures, not icons.
  • Use Smart Signifiers. A signifier is any visual cue that helps a user navigate your site. Standardized signifiers (i.e. a magnifying glass as a search function) can help decrease clutter while remaining intuitive. 
  • Strategically Use Color. Designers are well aware of the significance of color on users’ psyches. For example, red signifies power, passion, and energy, while green may evoke social responsibility or wealth. Color is an easy way to communicate the mood of your brand without lengthy blocks of text. 
  • Utilize the Principles of Symmetry. Symmetry is a simple way to create visual appeal, but there are several different forms. Each principle of symmetry has a different effect on a viewer, much like color. Applying these principles can help you balance information with simplicity on your website.

The Bottom Line

Your website may be clean, but this doesn’t make it intuitive. A simple website relates to usability, not its look. To create an attractive yet intuitive website, use the basic principles of design to your advantage, such as color, symmetry, and signifiers. Designers can sometimes get bogged down by aesthetics and using tricks to create a clean look – when it comes to user experience, however, it’s best to go back to the basics.

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    Stephen Moyers

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